ABUJA - Nigeria is struggling to make sense of a report that says high-level officials and business people stole $6.8 billion in public funds intended to subsidize the cost of fuel. At the same time, the lawmaker that spearheaded the report is accused of accepting a bribe from an oil company and is under investigation.
In early January, business in Nigeria came to a standstill after the fuel subsidy was cut at the recommendation of economists. Protests broke out across the country as the price of food and fuel skyrocketed.
Nigeria is Africa’s largest oil exporter, but it imports most of the fuel it consumes. Economists say the subsidy institutionalized corruption and waste, but the public outcry forced President Goodluck Jonathan to partially reinstate the subsidy, pending further investigation.
Member of Parliament Farouk Lawan then led a committee that found $6.8 billion of the subsidy funds had been stolen by high-level public officials and crooked business people over three years before 2011.
Last week, Nigerian Minister of Finance Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala said the ministry is working to identify companies that took subsidy funds and did not provide fuel. She says Nigeria will ask for the money back.
"If we find that, for instance, we paid and it cannot be documented that that payment led to a genuine supply of products then we shall be asking those people to refund us," said Okonjo-Iweala.
While the minister was revealing her plans, however, Lawan was caught up in his own scandal.
CEO of Zenon Oil and Gas Limited Femi Otedola accused the lawmaker of demanding a $3.5 million bribe and of receiving $620,000. Otedola says Lawan asked for the cash to remove Zenon from the list of companies accused of stealing subsidy funds.
Lawan spent the weekend in jail and is now under investigation. Zenon remains on the list of companies accused of stealing public money.
University of Abuja senior lecturer Abubakar Kari says the bribe scandal may be legitimate, but it may also be an attempt to distract the public from the larger issue, the stolen fuel subsidy funds.
"If care is not taken this particular incident will completely dwarf or even drown the larger issue of corruption within the oil industry that was uncovered by that committee," said Kari.
Atuyebe Oyede, a newspaper editor in the Niger Delta says it is always good when corruption is uncovered, but he worries that this case will be forgotten by authorities when it is no longer in the public’s eye.
"I use the word 'welcome development' because in Nigeria there are always developing issues," said Oyede. "At the end, we don’t see the development because many things are swept under the carpet."
The report that alleges the billions of dollars of funds were stolen is currently being reviewed by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission. Last month, activists demanded action be taken against guilty parties and threatened to stage mass protests, but have since backed off of their deadline.